Fabric of Their Lives

There’s a new exhibition of works by the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, whose lives have been transformed by worldwide acclaim for their artistry.

"All I know is that the museum's a better place because of the Gee's Bend exhibitions," says Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (shown here). "They expand the sense of what art can be." The new show (quilts are by Loretta P. Bennett) opened in Houston in June. (John F. Ficara; Collection of the Tinwood Alliance)
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Now a second exhibition, "Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt," has been organized by the MFAH and the Tinwood Alliance. The show, which opened in June, features newly discovered quilts from the 1930s to the 1980s, along with more recent works by established quilters and the younger generation they inspired. The exhibition will travel to seven other venues, including the Indianapolis Museum of Art (October 8-December 31) and the Orlando Museum of Art (January 27-May 13, 2007).

Arlonzia Pettway lives in a neat, recently renovated house off a road plagued with potholes. The road passes by cows and goats grazing outside robin's-egg blue and brown bungalows. "I remember some things, honey," Pettway, 83, told me. (Since my interview with her, Pettway suffered a stroke, from which she is still recovering.) "I came through a hard life. Maybe we weren't bought and sold, but we were still slaves until 20, 30 years ago. The white man would go to everybody's field and say, 'Why you not at work?'" She paused. "What do you think a slave is?"

As a girl, Pettway would watch her grandmother, Sally, and her mother, Missouri, piecing quilts. And she would listen to their stories, many of them about Dinah Miller, who had been brought to the United States in a slave ship in 1859. "My great-grandmother Dinah was sold for a dime," Pettway said. "Her dad, brother and mother were sold to different people, and she didn't see them no more. My great-grandfather was a Cherokee Indian. Dinah was made to sleep with this big Indian like you stud your cow.... You couldn't have no skinny children working on your slave master's farm." In addition to Pettway, some 20 other Gee's Bend quiltmakers are Dinah's descendants.

The quilting tradition in Gee's Bend may go back as far as the early 1800s, when the community was the site of a cotton plantation owned by a Joseph Gee. Influenced, perhaps, by the patterned textiles of Africa, the women slaves began piecing strips of cloth together to make bedcovers. Throughout the post-bellum years of tenant farming and well into the 20th century, Gee’s Bend women made quilts to keep themselves and their children warm in unheated shacks that lacked running water, telephones and electricity. Along the way they developed a distinctive style, noted for its lively improvisations and geometric simplicity.

Gee's Bend men and women grew and picked cotton, peanuts, okra, corn, peas and potatoes. When there was no money to buy seed or fertilizer, they borrowed one or both from Camden businessman E. O. Rentz, at interest rates only those without any choice would pay. Then came the Depression. In 1931 the price of cotton plummeted, from about 40 cents a pound in the early 1920s, to about a nickel. When Rentz died in 1932, his widow foreclosed on some 60 Gee's Bend families. It was late fall, and winter was coming.

"They took everything and left people to die," Pettway said. Her mother was making a quilt out of old clothes when she heard the cries outside. She sewed four wide shirttails into a sack, which the men in the family filled with corn and sweet potatoes and hid in a ditch. When the agent for Rentz's widow came around to seize the family's hens, Pettway's mother threatened him with a hoe. "I'm a good Christian, but I'll chop his damn brains out," she said. The man got in his wagon and left. "He didn't get to my mama that day," Pettway told me.

Pettway remembered that her friends and neighbors foraged for berries, hunted possum and squirrels, and mostly went hungry that winter until a boat with flour and meal sent by the Red Cross arrived in early 1933. The following year, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided small loans for seed, fertilizer, tools and livestock. Then, in 1937, the government's Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) bought up 10,000 Gee's Bend acres and sold them as tiny farms to local families.

In 1941, when Pettway was in her late teens, her father died. "Mama said, 'I'm going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and cover up under it for love.'" There were hardly enough pants legs and shirttails to make up a quilt, but she managed. (That quilt—jostling rectangles of faded gray, white, blue and red—is included in the first exhibition.) A year later, Arlonzia married Bizzell Pettway and moved into one of the new houses built by the government. They had 12 children, but no electricity until 1964 and no running water until 1974. A widow for more than 30 years, Arlonzia still lives in that same house. Her mother, Missouri, who lived until 1981, made a quilt she called "Path Through the Woods" after the 1960s freedom marches. A quilt that Pettway pieced together during that period, "Chinese Coins", is a medley of pinks and purples—a friend had given her purple scraps from a clothing factory in a nearby town.

"At the time I was making that quilt, I was feeling something was going to happen better, and it did," Pettway says. "Last time I counted I had 32 grandchildren and I think between 13 and 14 great-grands. I'm blessed now more than many. I have my home and land. I have a deepfreeze five feet long with chicken wings, neck bones and pork chops."

The first exhibition featured seven quilts by Loretta Pettway, Arlonzia Pettway's first cousin. (One in three of Gee's Bend’s 700 residents is named Pettway, after slave owner Mark H. Pettway.) Loretta, 64, says she made her early quilts out of work clothes. "I was about 16 when I learned to quilt from my grandmama," she says. "I just loved it. That's all I wanted to do, quilt. But I had to work farming cotton, corn, peas and potatoes, making syrup, putting up soup in jars. I was working other people's fields too. Saturdays I would hire out; sometimes I would hire out Sundays, too, to give my kids some food. When I finished my chores, I'd sit down and do like I'm doing now, get the clothes together and tear them and piece. And then in summer I would quilt outside under the big oak." She fingers the fabric pieces in her lap. "I thank God that people want me to make quilts," she says. "I feel proud. The Lord lead me and guide me and give me strength to make this quilt with love and peace and happiness so somebody would enjoy it. That makes me feel happy. I'm doing something with my life."


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